The Best Progressive Rock (and Metal) of 2013

[4 December 2013]

By Jordan Blum and Brice Ezell

I’m sure I speak for every progressive rock fan at PopMatters when I say that this music is almost as crucial to our wellbeing as breathing, eating, and sleeping (hell, we often do all of those while ensconced in our records). If you’re like me, you grew up with the ominous intricacy of King Crimson, the majestic dynamics of Yes, and the multifaceted vocal arrangements of Gentle Giant. In other words, you associate the stepping stones of your life with the pinnacle releases of the genre—I recall spending most of my freshman year in high school trying to convince everyone about the genius of A Passion Play. It is because of this reverence for the classic period that many fans approach newer progressive rock with skepticism, prematurely judging it as inferior to the original era. Well, if 2013 has shown us aficionados anything, it’s that prog is as original, diverse, impressive, and important as ever.

This year saw the release of some of the best modern progressive music from a wide array of subgenres and idiosyncratic approaches. Some artists were finally able to convince listeners that their solo side is every bit as viable as their collaborative side, while others were able to celebrate their legacies in a very worthy way. A few outfits returned from years of silence to remind us of how ingenious they are, and as usual, several underdogs managed to steal some of the spotlight. After all, the celebration of rising talent and the potential to be consistently surprised have always been two of the most endearing attributes of the field.

Of course, some heavy hitters didn’t make the list, whether it’s because their latest works came too late (Sky Architect) or fell too far (Dream Theater). Naturally, we welcome your feedback in the comments, as lists like these always stir up plenty of discussion (and even a bit of controversy, which is fine as long as you keep it civilized). In any case, the choices you’ll find below represent the cream of the progressive crop for 2013, and we’re sure that you’ll discover plenty of gems within. Jordan Blum

 


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In the Silence

A Fair Dream Gone Mad

(Sensory)

10

In the Silence
A Fair Dream Gone Mad

One wouldn’t be mistaken in listing off names like Katatonia and Ghost Brigade upon hearing the debut by the California prog doom band In the Silence—A Fair Dream Gone Mad is damn near close to a direct reference to several Katatonia albums. One would be misled, however, in taking those similarities to be a mark against AFDGM. In balancing the technical flashiness of prog with the moody, emotionally direct elements of doom, In the Silence pulls off a unique genre melding that’s much more difficult than many might give it credit for.  This exercise in melancholy is an under-the-radar gem, and an indication that these guys are destined to be a lot more than a blip on the radar. Brice Ezell

 


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Big Big Train

English Electric: Full Power

(self-released)

9

Big Big Train
English Electric: Full Power

English troupe Big Big Train is a rare exception in the music industry—a band that manages to equal everything done by its most transparent influence, in this case, early Genesis. Of course, there’s always been much more to them than that, but with the recent additions of vocalists David Longdon, drummer Nick D’Virgilio (ex-Spock’s Beard), and guitarist David Gregory (XTC), the connection is quite palpable. English Electric: Full Power combines their recent English Electric LPs with the newer Make Some Noise EP. Seeing as how the two albums contained so many wonderful tracks, such as the hypnotic “Judas Unrepentant” and the touching “Curator of Butterflies”, it makes sense that hearing them together is even more joyous. In addition, the extra four tracks (from the EP) fit in perfectly, and the reorganized sequencing makes the collection feel more cohesive and seamless. Big Big Train’s blend of historically rich social commentary, luscious harmonies, and warm yet detailed arrangements have never sounded better. Really, these are some of the most majestic, catchy, and complex pieces the genre has ever produced. Jordan Blum

 


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Ihsahn

Das Seelenbrechen

(Candlelight)

8

Ihsahn
Das Seelenbrechen

It’s only been a year since Ihsahn’s last solo LP, the mighty Eremita (which earned a spot on last year’s progressive rock list), but clearly this bold Norwegian songwriter hasn’t rested since then. With Das Seelenbrechen (“The Soul Breaking”), he’s continuing his evolution further away from the raw black metal of the recently reunited Emperor and further into the avant-garde classical direction that classics like Anthems to Welkin at Dust only hinted at. There’s also a mean Scott Walker streak going on here, with the all-over-the-place zaniness of “Tacit” suggesting that Bish Bosch had more than a few plays in Ihsahn’s stereo. But amidst all this experimentation, there are the groove-heavy riffs of “NaCl”, the staccato blasts of “Hilber”, and the masterful symphonic metal of “Regen”, evidence that Ihsahn, no matter the wildly divergent turns he takes, is a metal maestro underneath it all. Brice Ezell

 


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Bruce Soord and Jonas Renske

Wisdom of Crowds

(K-Scope)

7

Bruce Soord and Jonas Renske
Wisdom of Crowds

On paper, there is little reason this project should work. Bruce Soord’s main project, The Pineapple Thief, is a Muse-ier Porcupine Tree. Jonas Renske is best known for his emotional lyrics and vocals as the frontman of Swedish doom legends Katatonia. Wisdom of Crowds tilts more towards the former of the two’s sonic hallmarks, but even with that being the case, this is a weird, weird record. Hopping back and forth between Gothic gloom (showstopper “Frozen North”), dubstep (“The Light”), and bizarre victrola samples (the title track), this record may be challenging. But in daring to be bold and unencumbered by the routine, it draws from multiple at times disparate sonic influences and makes something new and exciting. If that’s not progressive, it’s hard to imagine what is. Brice Ezell

 


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Moon Safari

Himlabacken, Vol. 1

(Blomljud)

6

Moon Safari
Himlabacken, Vol. 1

There is no rational reason to explain why the Skelleftea, Sweden native prog chanteurs of Moon Safari aren’t international music stars. Ever since its inception in 2003, though particularly with its 2010 defining masterpiece Lover’s End, Moon Safari has purveyed a style of classic prog that’s drenched in some of the most gorgeous harmonies this side of the Beach Boys. These Swedes have many twenty-plus minute epics under their belts, but the pop appeal in their music is absolutely huge, a fact no different for Himlabacken, Vol. 1. With influences like Queen and Yes out in the forefront, this stellar collection from one of prog’s most underrated outfits offers equal measures of infectious hooks and dazzling instrumentation. Brice Ezell

5 - 1


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Riverside

Shrine of New Generation Slaves

(Inside Out)

5

Riverside
Shrine of New Generation Slaves

Visionary quartet Riverside is often considered the leading force in Polish progressive rock, and for good reason. Having released the brilliant Reality Dream trilogy (Out of Myself, Second Life Syndrome, and Rapid Eye Movement), as well as 2009’s unrelated Anno Domini High Definition, the band stood proudly as one of the most promising outfits in the genre. With Shrine of New Generation Slaves, they continued to impress. Truthfully, the record isn’t as versatile, colorful, or melodically rich as it could’ve been, which makes it feel like a successor to their EPs more than their LPs. Still, opening track “New Generation Slave” sets the stage well for the aggressive nature of the collection, while tracks like “The Depth of Self-Delusion”, “Celebrity Touch”, and “Deprived…” radiate pristine dynamic shifts, as heavy instrumentation melts into moving verses and gripping choruses. Shrine may not be one of Riverside’s best albums, but it’s still one of the choice releases of the year. Jordan Blum

 


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Ayreon

The Theory of Everything

(Inside Out)

4

Ayreon
The Theory of Everything

To many, Arjen Anthony Lucassen is a musical genius. The mastermind behind several progressive metal projects, his bombastic rock operas never get old. In 2008, following the release of the underappreciated 01011001, Lucassen put his most famous project, Ayreon, on hold in order to focus on other interests. Since then, fans have wondered if and when Ayreon would return (as well as how successful it would be if it ever did). Recently, Lucassen answered all of those questions with The Theory of Everything, another intricate, catchy, and highly ambitious saga. What separates this one from its siblings is its organization (42 tracks broken into four “suite”), relatively accessible storyline, conceptual continuity, focus on fewer guest musicians (even though prog royalty like Jordan Rudess, Steve Hackett, and Keith Emerson make appearances), and exceptional segues. Never before has an Ayreon album flowed so smoothly or contained so many thematic reprisals, which makes it a unique creation amongst the pack. The Theory of Everything doesn’t quite match its two immediate predecessors, but it comes damn close, which makes it a remarkable new start for the Ayreon name. Jordan Blum

 


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Devin Townsend

The Retinal Circus

(Inside Out)

3

Devin Townsend
The Retinal Circus

Few, if any, musicians have a discography as diverse, unique, complex, and just plain eccentric as Canadian progressive metal master, Devin Townsend. Each one of his dozen or so solo works offers something special while also sticking to his revered formula, and he pays tribute to almost all of them on The Retinal Circus. More than just a run-of-the-mill concert experience, The Retinal Circus captures flawless recreations of some of his best work (such as “Planet of the Apes”, “Color Your World”, and “Hyperdrive”) ,while also incorporating wild theatrics, a zany storyline, several guest appearances, and, best of all, a consistently humorous vibe. Townsend balances his incredible musicianship with plenty of self-parody, which makes the entire affair very inviting. The Retinal Circus is easily one of the best live recordings in recent memory, as well as a perfect commemoration of Townsend’s career. Jordan Blum

 


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Steven Wilson

The Raven That Refused to Sing

(K-Scope)

2

Steven Wilson
The Raven That Refused to Sing

Embarking on a solo career is always a risky move, especially when you’re already established as arguably the top modern musician in your genre. Such is the case for Steven Wilson, whose various projects (especially Porcupine Tree) have catapulted him into the forefront of contemporary progressive rock. For many (not me, mind you), his debut LP, Insurgentes, was too industrial and avant-garde, while its follow-up, Grace for Drowning bled King Crimson a little too heavily. With The Raven That Refused to Sing, Wilson silenced just about every remaining naysayer, as it’s significantly more cohesive, original, and intricate (which is due in part to its enclosure of jazz fusion) than the other two. Whether you’re rocking out to “Luminol” (the best instrumental Wilson has ever created), basking in the multifaceted glory of “The Watchmaker”, or singing along to the gloriously sorrowful closing title track, The Raven proves to be a gem from beginning to end. In fact, it’s on par with anything else he’s done.  Jordan Blum

 


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Anathema

Universal

(K-Scope)

1

Anathema
Universal

Universal is so much more than the “very special night” type live album that it’s billed as. While 2010’s We’re Here Because We’re Here and last year’s breakthrough Weather Systems were milestones in Anathema’s long evolution into progressive rock’s tearjerking extraordinaires, Universal takes all of those albums’ highlights and cuts out all of their weak points. The result is an emotionally no-holds barred setlist, backed by the powerful performance of Bulgaria’s Plovdiv Philharmonic Orchestra, that stands as a culmination of everything the band has worked for up to this point. The CD/DVD’s sleeve art is as accurate a depiction of Anathema, circa 2013, as any: they really are, to borrow their words, “flying” on prog’s cloud nine. This is the rare live album that transcends the studio cuts it contains to become a whole new experience entirely. Brice Ezell

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/176942-the-best-progressive-rock-and-metal-of-2013/